By Katie McFadden
This week, a group of young men that make up the New York Aviators hockey team in the U.S. Premier Hockey League (USPHL), have left the ice at Aviator in Brooklyn to travel up to Utica in hopes of being crowned champs at Nationals. But the four-hour ride is short considering where many of them originally came from. From west coast states like Washington and California, to Ireland and even Sweden, this team is made up of members from across the globe, but they all wound up on our little peninsula as they pursue dreams of playing college hockey.
The USPHL is a junior hockey program that provides youth with a training outlet and steppingstone into the world of college hockey. And for young hockey players in Europe and other parts of the world, where college sports aren’t an option, it’s an ideal program for youth who hope to continue with their hockey career post-high school in hopes of one day making it to the big leagues across the world. Last week, during a break, many of the young men were in places like Minnesota and Massachusetts on a recruitment tour, scoping out potential colleges where they can play Division III college hockey.
But as they plan for the future, for the past few months, the main focus has been sticks and pucks. During a showcase in Stockholm, one coach from the league was looking out for potential recruits for the program. He had his eyes set on a few players, pitched the idea of them coming to New York, and seven young men from Sweden were on board. Meanwhile other coaches from across the country and world also recommended players for the program. For 31 young men, they found themselves calling Aviator Sports their home rink, with Mike Stanaway as their head coach and Jimmy Iucci as assistant coach. And not being from the area, they needed a home nearby. Through the program, more than half of the team was placed in homes in Rockaway, with six players sharing an apartment on Beach 98th, a whopping 14 sharing a home on Beach 136th and six more living at a home on Beach 121st.
On Monday, at the home of a generous neighbor who has befriended the young men, The Rockaway Times sat down with the Aviator players staying on Beach 121st to talk about their goals in the net and goals for their future. Four of them are from Stockholm, Sweden, including Mathias Rakell, 20, a right wing forward, Max Granlund, 20, a center and left wing defense, Markus Andrews, 20, who plays left defense, and Christopher Friberg, 20, a center, plus 21-year-old Stirling Nash, a left wing forward from Seattle, WA and Trey Loucks, 19, a right wing forward from Corona, CA. They say at Beach 121st, they make a good team. “Everyone gets along,” Andrews said. And they’ve been enjoying their temporary home.
When they first arrived in September, they hit the beach. “It’s cool because when we left Sweden, it was getting cold, so we went swimming here in September. It was really nice,” Andrews said. They say they’ve met some great people and have even found the locals to be friendlier than back home. “I think the best part of Rockaway is the people. In general, the people of New York are more friendly than Swedish people. Talking to a neighbor and getting invited for lunch would never happen there,” Andrews said. Stirling, of Seattle, agreed. “I think I like east coast people more,” he said.
And of course, young athletes have to get those calories in. They’ve frequented several local eateries, with Pico being a favorite. But they’ve also been to Meat Up Grill, Rocco’s, Last Stop, Dunkin Donuts, O’Sake, Jamesons, and are regulars at Bagel Barista Station for breakfast, and sandwiches at Pickles and Pies. Plus, they’re big fans of the ferry, taking it in their free time to explore Manhattan, like last Friday, when they stopped at JKS Printing to grab some green gear saying, “Rockaway Beach”, before heading to Stone Street to enjoy some St. Patrick’s Day festivities.
But there’s limited time to spend in Rockaway or enjoy the NY tourist hotspots. After all, the guys are here to play hockey. Part of the draw to this program, in addition to being a pathway to playing college hockey, is getting plenty of ice time. Since they landed in NY in September, the boys have been practicing for three hours a day from Monday to Friday. “No team can practice three hours a day in Sweden,” Andrews said. And on weekends, it’s game time. In the middle of the season, which began on October 12, they were playing two to three games a weekend. And they’ve been playing well. “The season’s been really successful,” Stirling said. “Out of 38 games, we lost six,” Rakell said. “We only lost to three teams.” Throughout the season, the Aviators have faced off against northeast teams from PA to upstate to Long Island to CT and NJ, including their rivals, the Rockets, who practice at the Prudential Center.
The boys explained that last year, the Rockets knocked the Aviators out of the playoffs, and the Rockets went on to win Nationals. But this year, the Aviators got their revenge. “It was a big deal for the coach this year to make sure we didn’t make the same mistake twice. We lost to them three times this year and then beat them in the playoffs, 5-4 in overtime, with Max scoring the overtime goal, and the second game we won 6-3 in an empty netter,” Andrews said. “For the guys who came back from last year, it was a big deal to beat them at playoffs.”
After a successful regular and playoff season, the Aviators are on to Nationals. They left on March 22 to head up to Utica for the Nationals, which take place from March 23 through March 28. Eighteen teams from all across the states, including the west coast teams, will be competing for the championship rings. The New York Aviators are feeling confident. “I think we’ll take it home,” Loucks said. “If we play like we did the last three playoff games or better, we’ll win,” Rakell, who happens to be the top scorer in the USPHL, said. “Our strength is offense and we’re good with the puck.”
After hopefully taking Nationals, the boys will be coming back to Rockaway to spend a few days celebrating before heading back home on March 31. As for the future, they all hope to keep playing. “For most of us, our goal is to play college hockey and after those four years, we’ll see what happens,” Andrews said. For some, that means making it to the top. “I’m hoping to be in the NHL one day,” Loucks said.
To follow up with the USPHL Nationals, check out www.usphlpremier.com or USPHLHockey on Instagram and USPHL on Twitter.